Small house policy can't go unchallenged for much longer

Peter Kammerer says the day will come when Hong Kong has to agree on what to do about the unsustainable small house policy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 5:44am

A New Year trip to the northeast New Territories and a chat with an indigenous villager had me seeing a side of a story I'd not considered. Ah Fat has a nice spread; he's got 2,100 square feet of standalone living space for his five-member family, vegetable and flower gardens, peace and tranquility all around and the rolling hills of Sheung Shui for scenery. He got the land for free under the government's small house policy and his three-storey home cost less than HK$1 million to build.

His circumstances are a far cry from the majority in Kowloon or on Hong Kong Island, crammed into pokey flats that are unaffordable to buy and exorbitant to rent, with constant traffic noise for ambiance and the black soot of diesel pollution for company.

It's not difficult to be envious of Ah Fat. The only apparent downside to what he's got is a lack of city conveniences like nearby shops and frequent public transport. But they seem minor trade-offs to the benefits of a reasonable quality of life in a good-sized home, comparatively low housing costs, greenery, clean air and friendly neighbours.

Too easily, we forget about Hong Kong's compact size. Travel from end to end or side to side rarely takes more than an hour. That, in effect, makes the New Territories our suburbs, a natural place for family living. The city, as anywhere else in the world, is for young, trendy go-getters who love the buzz; couples with children and those no longer young at heart belong where there is clean air and peace of mind.

But family-friendly villages and retirement homes were not most on my mind when Ah Fat invited me and my friend to take a break from our country jaunt for a festive drink. I wanted to ask him about the small house policy, the 1972 British colonial decision that gave all male New Territories villagers with roots to the region before 1898 a plot of land at the age of 18. It's unsustainable and chauvinistic, and seemingly a violation of our equal opportunity laws. For people with generations of connections to other parts of Hong Kong, it's unfair.

The policy was meant to improve the standard of living of then mostly-poor villagers. Times have obviously changed in the four decades since. Abuses and anomalies are well documented, but dismantling what has been put in place is tricky. Ah Fat sees it quite another way - it's impossible to change.

New Year formalities aside and the hospitality giving bravado, we confronted our host. His reply was no-nonsense and simple: There are those in this world who are fortunate and those who are not. Some are born into royalty, others come into existence in poverty. In Hong Kong, there are those given land on a plate due to an old colonial decree. That's just the way it is.

Put in such a way, the debate about the policy is purely a matter of haves and have-nots - or more crudely, jealousy. I am certainly jealous of what Ah Fat has, but from a sense of quality of life, not entitlement. From the perspective of fairness and Hong Kong's sustainability, it's quite another matter, though. As with the status of royalty, it's a decision not for a few, but us all, to make, when the time is right.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post